DUBLIN (AP) — Divisions flared in Northern Ireland's cross-community government Friday over police plans to open a criminal investigation into Bloody Sunday, a watershed event in the territory's conflict 40 years ago when British troops killed 13 Irish Catholic demonstrators.
The Protestant who leads the 5-year-old coalition, Peter Robinson, said police must investigate what his Catholic colleague atop the government, Martin McGuinness, was doing as an Irish Republican Army commander on that day 40 years ago. The comments represented a rare moment of discord between Robinson and McGuinness over the latter's murky IRA past.
Robinson said McGuinness "openly admitted that he was in charge" of IRA forces in Londonderry at Bloody Sunday. "If that was the case then there has to be an investigation, if you're investigating the (British) Army."
The episode underscores how scarred Northern Ireland remains from its four-decade conflict, which left a trail of more than 3,200 unsolved killings, most of them committed by McGuinness' Provisional IRA. That dominant IRA faction renounced violence and disarmed in 2005, a prerequisite for McGuinness to become joint leader of Northern Ireland's government two years later.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, a British-government ordered investigation into the Jan. 30, 1972, killings in Londonderry's Bogside district, took 12 years and nearly 200 million pounds ($300 million) to produce a 2010 report concluding that soldiers of the British Army's hardened Parachute Regiment gunned down unarmed protesters without justification. Prime Minister David Cameron issued an immediate apology but none of the troops who opened fire that day has ever been charged with any crime.
Commanders of the Police Service of Northern Ireland announced Thursday they intend to open a criminal investigation into Bloody Sunday, but said they couldn't say when it might start because the effort would require about 30 detectives working full-time on the case for at least three years, and they lacked the necessary resources.
Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland's Catholic minority nonetheless welcomed the public pledge as a sign of progress — and leaders of the British Protestant majority immediately called for any new probe to nail down McGuinness' record as Londonderry's former Provisional IRA leader, too.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry did rule that McGuinness' testimony was not credible in parts and found that he probably had armed himself with a submachine gun on the day, and may even have opened fire at troops. But its report emphasized that nothing any IRA factions did that day could justify how the soldiers shot unarmed civilians, killing 13 and wounding 15.
McGuinness — who during his 2002 testimony to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry refused to answer questions about other Provisional IRA members' actions on the day — rejected its findings about him again Friday.
"I totally and absolutely reject that. It didn't happen, it's not true," he said. "I didn't fire a machine gun, I didn't even have a machine gun and that's where it rests."
He said Protestant leaders putting his IRA past in the spotlight "do not want to see the paras (paratroopers) investigated for murder."
Experts on the Provisional IRA say McGuinness, 62, was a commander of the outlawed group from 1971 to 2005, holding a series of senior positions at a time when the group killed most of its 1,775 victims. He was convicted twice of IRA membership in the mid-1970s but insists he resigned from the organization while in an Irish prison in 1974.
Many Protestants have complained that disproportionate state resources have already been spent on Bloody Sunday versus an epically long list of other unsolved crimes, including the IRA killings of hundreds of police officers. They say any probe into Bloody Sunday should be handled by a "cold case" specialist unit separate from the police called the Historical Enquiries Team. It was created in 2005 specifically to review evidence on more than 3,200 unsolved killings from the conflict.
"Why are police resources, already under enormous pressure, to be devoted to a particular event when the unsolved murders of 211 RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) police officers are being investigated along with over 2,000 civilian unsolved murders through the Historical Enquiries Team?" asked Terry Spence, chairman of the police union.
Bloody Sunday Inquiry report, http://bit.ly/wjW597